Concussions and brain injuries are hot topics in sports.
Over the past five years, the National Football League has instituted new rules designed to minimize head injuries for its athletes. Deep research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has led to a wider discussion about athlete safety at the professional and youth levels.
Mixed martial arts is no different.
As a whole, fighters are becoming more cognizant of the long-term damages they accrue during their time in competition. But they are also increasingly aware of the potential dangers that await those who spend too much time sparring against teammates in the gym.
Historically, fighters have prepared for combat by mimicking the experiences they will go through on fight night. They conduct full sparring sessions multiple times per week, often against a cast of rotating and fresh opponents designed to push them to their cardiovascular limit.
Such training is a great way to prepare for a fight, but it also presents dangerous consequences. Fighting is inherently a dangerous sport, but it is made even more so by the countless small concussions incurred by fighters in the gym. Concussions in the gym have historically been ignored by fighters because they are preparing for a bout; rare is the athlete that will pull out of a fight and the money-making opportunity it provides because they were knocked out by a training partner.
But changes are being made.
"We're starting to see a trend of fighters cutting back on sparring. I know I have," UFC heavyweight Travis Browne said during Thursday's UFC on Fox pre-fight press conference. "I'll save the hard blows for the cage."
Lightweight Donald Cerrone said the idea of cutting back on sparring is a good one for the sport in general.
"I think it's great. I went and participated in the Cleveland Brain Study," Cerrone said. "You don't know what's going on up there sometimes, so it's good to have someone study it and see if there are long-lasting effects."
The study referred to by Cerrone is being conducted by the Cleveland Clinic. It is a research into the long-term effects on fighters who participate in combat sports. Involvement is not just limited to the UFC. The Nevada Athletic Commission, Bellator, Top Rank and Golden Boy boxing have also announced participation in the program.
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has launched a landmark study with professional fighters that will help determine whether magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain, along with other tests, can detect subtle changes in brain health that correlate with impaired thinking and functioning.
The program is a necessary one, and changes in the way sparring sessions are conducted is just one way to help ensure health long after a career is over. But it is also a way to protect the long-term future of combat sports. As noted, the NFL has instituted rules to help prevent head injuries.
But enrollment in youth football is down across the board in America. The Pop Warner football program reported a 9.7% drop in participation between 2010-2012. Pop Warner chief medical officer Dr. Julian Bailes attributes much of that drop to new parental awareness of concussion-related injuries.
"Unless we deal with these truths, we're not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport," Bailes told ESPN in November. "We need to get it right."
Miesha Tate is another athlete who is concerned with her long-term health.
"I feel like it's good. Fighter safety is always important. A lot of times, we don't take the time to think about it when we're getting in there and sparring. We don't know what we're going to feel like when we're older," Miesha Tate said. "I want to make sure that I have a long, healthy life. We have to make sure our brains are protected, because they're our most important organ."
"I want to save my head because I want to be able to raise my kids after this," Browne said.
All quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.